The 8 Best Books About Artificial Intelligence to Read Now

It’s no secret that we at WIRED are fascinated by artificial intelligence. But it’s also no secret that thorny, and sometimes unexpected, questions arise as automation and algorithms creep into new corners of life—transforming jobs, economies, and even the world order. Which is why this winter, we’re also fascinated by books that grapple with these very questions. How did algorithms become so influential in our politics? When will they become our chauffeurs? And how much should they really know about us? Written by historians, journalists, and researchers, each of these books examines a very different aspect of the world that has been or will be upended by the influence of artificial intelligence. So sink your teeth into the algorithmic issues that will define the decades to come.

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  • Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

    Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car

    by Alex Davies

    The “great man” theory holds that history is largely made by heroes—big, brawny, brainy dudes (always dudes) who reshape the future with brute force and brilliance. WIRED alum Alex Davies’ new book refutes that outdated theory. In Driven, Davies digs into the history of autonomous vehicles and the goofy, spirited cast of characters (still mostly dudes) who are working to shepherd the tech into existence. As Davies reveals, teamwork makes the dream work. Until it doesn’t. Then the lawsuits—and in one engineer’s case, handcuffs—fly.

    Eventually, robot cars might reshape the way modern life works. Autonomous vehicles could be a $7 trillion business by 2050; today, multibillion-dollar companies like Alphabet, General Motors, Ford, and Tesla race to hammer out the kinks. But back at the opening of the century, AVs were an academic hobbyhorse. Then an obscure clause in a 2001 funding bill poured government money into developing robot tech. Just a few years later, Darpa held a literal robot race across the Mojave Desert. The kooky entrants are the same engineers banking millions at the world’s largest AV companies today. For many, the money was a nice incentive. But as one roboticist tells Davies, most are driven by the classic maker ethos: “I sought something that would dent the world, that I could do with my own hands, that would happen in my time.”

    To paraphrase another visionary, the course of true engineering never did run smooth. Davies’ sharp narrative chronicles the personality clashes, philosophical divergences, funding crunches, and, in a shocking number of cases, troublesome wild creatures that get in robotics’ way. (A tip: When racing a robot across the desert, keep an eye out for the native tortoises, which will pee on you if you try to move them.) This is a book for anyone who’s sick of the hero narrative, and who wants to learn about how the business of building world-shaking robots truly creaks along.—Aarian Marshall

  • Courtesy of Liveright

    If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

    by Jill Lepore

    Pop quiz: Who is the presidential candidate that first used algorithmic modeling of the American electorate to win a contentious election? If you said Donald Trump, you’re 56 years too late. The year was 1960, and John F. Kennedy had contracted a little-known startup called the Simulmatics Corporation to use its pioneering “people machine” to survey American voters, predict their behavior, and provide campaign advice. In her history of Simulmatics (“the A-bomb of the social sciences,” a “Cold War Cambridge Analytica”), Jill Lepore chronicles those early days of algorithmic behavior modeling, and its inevitable influence on politics and society.

    Simulmatics would go on to win contracts with the The New York Times, which used its technology to anticipate the outcome of elections, and the Department of Defense, which used it to inform war strategy in Vietnam. Lepore, who is both a Harvard historian and a staff writer at the The New Yorker, brings the company’s history to life with brilliant archival details. Her depiction of the 1960s serves as a mirror of 2020: America is in the midst of a racial justice uprising, a technological arms race with its geographical foe, and an election shaped by the influence of technology. On any given page, you could swap “Simulmatics” for “Facebook” and the story would almost make sense. If Then is the story of technology’s forgotten founding fathers, whose work gave rise to the “people predictors” that would shape modern democracy and pave the way for today’s Silicon Valley’s giants. If the rise and fall of Simulmatics is better studied, then history may not be doomed to repeat itself—again. —Arielle Pardes

  • Courtesy of Currency

    The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health—and How We Must Adapt

    by Sinan Aral

    Writing about the pitfalls of social media poses an immediate conundrum: choosing which problem to focus on. The advertising-driven business model? The algorithmic amplification of divisive content? Partisan polarization? Election interference? In The Hype Machine, Sinan Aral decides to tackle pretty much all of them. He’s surprisingly successful. The director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Aral offers a God’s-eye view of the latest experimental research into the inner workings of social media. The result is something like a textbook—an engagingly written shortcut to expertise on what the likes of Facebook and Twitter are doing to our brains and our society.

    Aral is not a polemicist; he believes that social media offers real societal benefits, and he worries that efforts to fix the equally real harms it causes could sacrifice the good stuff in the process. He is careful not to let his conclusions run ahead of what has been proven in the literature. Readers looking for a devastating attack on Big Tech will therefore be disappointed. But Aral’s circumspection is mostly a virtue. When he concludes, for example, that the effectiveness of social media advertising “is wildly and brazenly oversold,” you can be confident that he’s taking stock of the available evidence, not cherry-picking in pursuit of an agenda. The book falters a bit when it comes to policy prescriptions; Aral’s dismissive treatment of the tech antitrust movement, in particular, lacks the sophistication of his empirical analysis. “I’m a scientist, entrepreneur, and investor—in that order.” he declares early on. That checks out. The chief virtue of The Hype Machine is not what Aral thinks, but what he knows. —Gilad Edelman

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